It was July, 2018 when Maureen Porras, an immigration attorney, went with a client to the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Miramar, Florida.
The client was a Nicaraguan immigrant father of two young children, married to an American citizen with medical conditions. As required, he periodically checked in with ICE. He had been informed that he was subject to deportation but wanted to request a humanitarian stay because of his wife’s condition, which was why Porras was with him that day.
Porras and the client met with the ICE agents, who were surprised to see an attorney there.
“I started to speak on his behalf,” she recalled to The Paradise Progressive. “They asked to take him to another room for questioning without counsel. I knew that if he went through that door alone, I would never see him again and he was going to be deported.”
Porras objected; she was going to be with him no matter what happened. Five uniformed ICE officers surrounded her. A supervisor was summoned. The atmosphere was grim and the officers demanding. At that time ICE was reputed to have physically abused attorneys.
But Porras persisted. “I refused to leave,” she recalled. “I caused a real scene. I felt the fear and the intimidation that immigrants are now facing. I knew that I had to stand up for my client. If I, as an attorney, couldn’t stand up for them, then who would? That experience, where you’re vulnerable, really made it clear that we need a change.”
Ultimately, they both left the ICE office together. Porras won a motion to reopen his case and it’s currently active before the immigration court—with a final hearing scheduled for 2022.
Porras called the incident “one of the most defining moments of my life.” It inspired her to run for the Florida House in the 105th District—to make the changes she says are needed.
The 105th District
The 105th stretches almost completely across the southern part of Florida. If it was mapped demographically, it would look like a barbell: population centers in the west (Naples Manor, Golden Gate and Lely Resort) then a long stretch of Everglades and population centers in the east (Miramar, Doral, Sweetwater and The Hammocks). It includes pieces of Collier, Miami Dade and just a bit of Broward counties and is mostly bounded on the north by the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75.
Based on the 2010 Census, the population of 157,369 was mostly Hispanic (69 percent) with a median age of 35 years and split evenly between men and women.
For the last two years, the 105th has been represented in Tallahassee by Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican who is now running for state Senate in the 35th Senate District.
Running against Porras is David Borrero, who describes himself as a “conservative Republican,” and serves as a commissioner of the city of Sweetwater.
Porras and her husband Caleb Johnston, a Florida state’s attorney, live in Doral on the east side of the district. While it’s a long trip from one end of the 105th to the other, Porras travels it at least twice a week to meet with voters and political groups.
“We’ve put in a lot of work in Collier County,” she says.
An American journey
Porras, who will be 32 years old on Oct. 23, was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Her mother left for the United States when Porras was 7 months old. Maureen followed when she was 7 years old. She received her US citizenship in 2008.
She attended public schools, which she says gave her a great appreciation for public education and made her a strong supporter of the institution. Indeed, she lists support for public education as a top issue.
“We have to support funding for public education and stop diverting money into charter schools,” she says. “My opponent proposes expanding charter schools.”
She graduated from Florida International University in Miami with a Bachelor degree in political science in 2010, graduating cum laude. She then earned her Juris Doctor degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law in 2014 and passed the Florida Bar the same year. While in law school, she worked in the Human and Immigrant Rights Clinic. There, she represented clients before the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency and the Immigration Court. She was also president of the Immigration Law Society.
It was her immigration work that inspired her run for office. “I’m running to bring a voice to issues and people who are often neglected and forgotten,” she says.
Her platform could be characterized as mainstream progressive. On her website she lists support for public education, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, reproductive rights and immigrant protection as her top issues in that order.
In Tallahassee she says she’ll work to fix the broken unemployment benefits system.
When it comes to dealing with coronavirus, Porras says she would have supported calling a special session, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) opposed. She favors help to small businesses hurt by the pandemic and “making sure that loans and funds are spread equally across the state – not just in the governor’s backyard.” She characterizes DeSantis’ performance as “poor” given his lack of transparency in reporting COVID-19 infection rates, his failure to enforce public safety measures like mask wearing and social distancing and his early dismissal of the dangers of the virus.
As Porras campaigns around the district, she says she’s finding that her Nicaraguan origins are a considerable advantage. Sweetwater has the highest population of Nicaraguan-Americans in the country. “I’m making inroads with the Nicaraguan community,” she says. “I believe I would be the first Democratic Nicaraguan-American official elected to office.”
But she’s reaching out across the board, well beyond her ethnic community. “Most of the registered voters are independents. I’m not just reaching out to registered Republicans and Democrats; I’m reaching out to independents. You really do have to persuade them and I’m making progress.”
And she adds: “We have a good chance to win here.”
Like many people, Rachel Brown’s politics and understanding of the world has evolved—but she’s had a lot further to go and started at an earlier age than most.
Born in 1994 and raised in Naples, Fla., Brown’s father made money selling guns at gun shows. She was raised in a house without air conditioning with Fox News blaring in the background. Until the third grade she was home schooled but then her mother, a teacher by profession, worked three jobs to afford the tuition to send her to private school at the Evangelical Christian School in Fort Myers.
It was an upbringing that might have produced a woman with narrow expectations, a limited perspective on the world and conservative political views.
Instead, today Brown is the progressive candidate for the Florida state Senate in District 27, determined to protect the district’s natural environment, ensure a decent life for its people and tackle the challenges that face them.
“I’m a liberal who comes from conservative roots,” she says. “I’m tired of my legislators ignoring issues like harmful algal blooms, the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases, and the massive homeless crisis on the rise.”
Center of gravity
State Senate District 27 includes Cape Coral, Fort Myers, Pine Island, Sanibel and Captiva. It is the center of population in Lee County. The Caloosahatchee River runs through it to its shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.
The District is currently represented by Republican Sen. Elizabeth Benaquisto, who is term-limited and stepping down.
Benaquisto’s retirement set off a ferocious primary battle to succeed her between state House Reps. Ray Rodrigues (R-76-Fort Myers Beach) and Heather Fitzenhagen (R-78-Fort Myers), a battle so bitter they appeared in dueling TV ads firing guns, with the barely disguised implication they would gladly turn those guns on each other.
By then, Brown was already a declared candidate for the seat. She was approached by state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-34) the designated Senate minority leader, who urged Brown not to run so that Democrats could vote in an open Republican primary and elect the more moderate Fitzenhagen.
However, Brown refused, saying “How can I tell people I’ve marched with that I changed my mind, I’m not going to run, and they should go vote for a mediocre Republican instead who’s just going to take their taxes and use it for corporate handouts? And how can I take a backroom deal that represents the behavior I’m fighting to end?”
On Aug. 18 Rodrigues decisively defeated Fitzenhagen.
Given the past Republican nature of the District, the conventional wisdom is that it will remain the same.
Brown is determined to prove that assumption wrong. As her campaign slogan puts it: “Defy the norm!”
After three years in private school, Brown attended Palmetto Ridge High School in Naples for a year and then began going part time to Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is still studying.
“I wasn’t planning to run for office before I got my degree,” she says. “But it’s incredibly urgent that I do it now.”
Brown is training as an environmental engineer and it was her sensitivity and understanding of the environment—and particularly the relationship of the District with its natural setting—that powered her run for office.
“Water quality is the big issue for everyone,” she observes. “Anyone in Southwest Florida has seen the degradation of our water and the algae blooms. My whole life I’ve heard folks that have been around longer than I have say that the water used to be a bright, beautiful crystal blue, not like the brown and black plumes we see today.”
“I believe every person should have a legal right to clean air and clean water; a right that citizens of District 27 do not currently have,” she says, adding that she’s ready to fight for that right in Tallahassee.
She’s also angry that important environmental legislation has repeatedly been put off or deferred by the state legislature.
“Every time they see an environmental group trying to do something good they try to stop it,” she says.
She’s particularly incensed by what she calls the deceptively named Clean Waterways Act, which has been signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
While the law puts in place a variety of water purity regulations and procedures, it also takes away the power of local governments to extend legal rights to plants, animals or bodies of water, so that their purity or health can be protected in court. Brown believes there needs to be an environmental bill of rights and says she will work to repeal the Act in order to pass a better alternative.
It’s mainly on these environmental issues that she most disagrees with her opponent. During the primary, Rodrigues was painted as a tool of the sugar industry around Lake Okeechobee, earning him the nickname “Sugar Ray.” Water from the lake is blamed for much of the pollution that flows down the Caloosahatchee River and dumps into the waters of the 27th District, clogging the canals of Cape Coral with algal mats and causing blue-green algae blooms along the river’s shores.
“He’s everything I am not,” says Brown. “He doesn’t seem to put the people of Lee County first.”
While the natural environment is critical to sustaining life and the 27th District’s economy, that life is under stress from the pandemic and the economy has been badly battered.
Nonetheless, Brown is optimistic: “I truly believe that a combination of individual and community efforts can make everyone’s lives better,” she says. “There are so many positive changes to be made when we work together.”
She points out that in Lee County the average cost of rent has increased by 19 percent since 2001 while the average income has gone up by only 4 percent, meaning that working people cannot keep up. She favors increasing the minimum wage to a livable level of $15 over six years. “If people aren’t making enough to live they’re going to need help,” she says.
She has seen homelessness in Lee County in person while working food service jobs. With the pandemic and economic crash she fears that homelessness is likely to increase and the county has to be ready for it.
People also need their healthcare, which she vows to protect, and she wants to expand Medicaid in the state.
Will she be branded a “socialist” for all this? Ironically, she points out, Rodrigues himself praised socialized healthcare. It came during a League of Women Voters forum when he commended Sweden’s approach to the COVID crisis by trying to develop herd immunity—covered by its socialized healthcare.
Brown also supports mask mandates to protect people from coronavirus.
Given her father’s past gun dealing, Brown says she’s comfortable with gun ownership as long as owners behave legally and responsibly. However, she feels they should be held liable for the use of their weapons. She really takes issue with Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
“Stand your ground as it is doesn’t do the job it was intended to do,” she argues. “It shouldn’t be allowed to be used in an offensive way.”
One issue that is close to her heart is that of infrastructure—good public transportation and safe streets—and for a very personal reason.
In 2004 her 12-year-old brother Eric was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was riding his bicycle in Golden Gate Estates. Brown believes the culprit—who was never caught—was drunk or on drugs.
The incident made her determined to work for greater road safety. “We have a lack of city planning,” she notes. “A lot of the county is considered a rural environment but that’s just a way to excuse the lack of planning. We need better planning because then we’ll have safer roadways and fewer emissions.”
Her stance on infrastructure has won her an endorsement from Thomas Kanell, creator of ABetterLeeTran.com, a website advocating improved public transportation in Lee County. He called her “a courageous activist whose focus on the needs of everyday people and on preserving the environment is a fresh alternative from the money-driven politics that have characterized elections in our state.”
Her brother’s death also convinced Brown that alcohol and drugs need to be gotten off the streets. “Drug possession in and of itself is not the issue,” she maintains. “Driving under the influence of drugs and reckless driving in general is. Rather than busting people in their homes for drug consumption, we need to keep it off the roads.”
A public servant
Brown is fully aware that running as a Democrat in what has to date been a Republican district is a long, difficult battle against heavy odds. Her opponent is deep-rooted, backed by the Republican establishment and well-funded.
“At the start of my campaign, I innocently imagined a full paid staff; leaders of volunteer crews, managers, and social media people,” she recounts. “Now I realize that’s not going to happen.”
Instead, small donations have enabled her to order and distribute a hundred face masks and face shields. In addition to using social media she’s purchased yard signs and been able to produce a 30-second television advertisement. She’s planning to send out mailers.
In what she calls a game-changing development, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee organization called Red to Blue is helping her with software and text message campaigning.
She’s been endorsed by other candidates like congressional candidate Cindy Banyai and Anselm Weber, running for the Florida House in District 76.
Interestingly enough, she’s also getting Republican help from supporters of Heather Fitzenhagen who were disgusted by Rodrigues’ primary campaign.
“Many women are angered by Ray’s vicious campaign against Heather which ultimately lost her the primary,” she observes. “In order to win, I need support from all women and I’m delighted by those who have joined me.”
She acknowledges that “It’s hard being a grassroots candidate,” but adds, “I’m powering to the polls.”
Among the many promises and pledges that are made on the campaign trail, there’s one Brown is absolutely determined to keep: “My biggest celebration when I win will be to finally pay for air conditioning for my mother,” she says.
In a reversal of his previous vociferous opposition to mail-in voting, President Donald Trump now says that mail-in voting is “safe and secure, tried and true”—in Florida.
He announced the reversal in a 12:55 pm tweet today, August 4.
The full tweet stated (capitalization his): “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting, in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”
It is unclear to what “Democrats attempts” he was referring.
Trump’s previous attacks on mail-in voting were threatening Republican turnout in the key swing state. He has charged, without evidence or outside confirmation, that mail-in voting is “inaccurate and fraudulent” and rigging the election.
According to the Politico article, BaughmanMerrill commissioned a poll that found that “Republicans have become overwhelmingly concerned about mail balloting, which Trump has claimed, without evidence, will lead to widespread voter fraud. A potentially decisive slice of Trump’s battleground-state base — 15 percent of Trump voters in Florida, 12 percent in Pennsylvania and 10 percent in Michigan — said that getting a ballot in the mail would make them less likely to vote in November.”
In Southwest Florida’s Lee and Collier counties, mail-in voting is well under way.
As of this writing, Lee County is reporting that 67,768 ballots have already been cast. That’s 14.48 percent of a total of 468,141 voters. Of these, 33,329 were Republican, 24,020 were Democratic, 10,006 had no party affiliation and 413 fell into the “other” category.
In Collier County 37,136 voters have mailed in their ballots, or 17.09 percent of the 217,312 voters eligible. Of those, 20,702 were Republican, 10,985 were Democratic, 5,246 had no party affiliation and 203 were “other.”
Also threatening voting by mail are new measures that will serve to slow down and disrupt US Postal Service (USPS) operations. On July 10, Trump’s newly appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a major campaign donor, sent out a memo to all USPS personnel, announcing elimination of late and extra mail delivery trips.
Despite the new measure, mail has not been delayed in Lee and Collier counties, David Walton, a USPS corporate communications specialist told The Paradise Progressive in response to a query.
On Wednesday, July 29, the US House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), House Resolution 7575, by a voice vote.
A version of the bill having already been passed by the Senate, the bill now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature into law. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was a co-sponsor of the original bill.
In summary, the bill makes reforms to address problems raised by harmful algal blooms of the sort that plagued the area in 2018. At the time there were gaps in understanding and coordination among federal and state agencies; this bill addresses those.
It also tries to minimize the water releases from Lake Okeechobee (Lake O) that have been widely blamed for cyanobacteria blooms.
Lastly, it tries to speed work on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The bill orders a study of harmful algal blooms, which have plagued Southwest Florida and were particularly severe in 2018. This will be a demonstration program to study their causes, detection, treatment and prevention. Lake Okeechobee will be a particular focus along with the Great Lakes, New Jersey, Louisiana and California.
Projects related to CERP have been dragging on for many years. The bill orders their expedited completion, in particular feasibility studies for the C-43 reservoir. If the Secretary of the Interior determines that a project is justified, he can proceed directly to preconstruction planning, engineering and design. In addition to CERP, the bill expedites projects in Arizona, California and another South Florida project, the C-111 canal, in southern Dade County. It also makes changes to earlier WRDAs to authorize a proposed reservoir south of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
When it comes to regulating water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the federal government will finally take into account levels of cyanobacteria and “evaluate the implications” of stopping the releases and “seek to minimize unnecessary releases to coastal estuaries”—which in the case of Southwest Florida means the Caloosahatchee River. The Department of Interior will also coordinate the efforts of federal and state agencies responsible for “monitoring, forecasting, and notification of cyanobacteria levels in Lake Okeechobee.”
In addition to minimizing potentially algae-blooming water releases, the Secretary of the Interior is now required to issue a monthly public report about the volumes and statistics of Lake O water releases.
Despite its other changes, the bill is careful to ensure that nothing changes from the current situation around the lake—known as the “savings clause.” As the bill puts it: “nothing shall be construed to authorize any new purpose for the management of Lake Okeechobee or authorize the Secretary to affect any existing authorized purpose, including flood protection and management of Lake Okeechobee to provide water supply for all authorized users.”
With mail-in voting already under way, the Florida Republican Party is trying to overcome President Donald Trump’s vociferous disparagement of mail-in voting by deceptively hiding his attacks on the practice.
In printed flyers delivered to Southwest Florida voters encouraging Republican mail-in voting, the Party tries to make Trump seem like an advocate of voting by mail by blurring the lines of tweets he issued on June 28 and July 10.
The tweets were contradictory, drawing a distinction between mail-in ballots and absentee ballots. In fact they are the same.
Quoting a June 28 tweet, the flyer quotes Trump tweeting (capitalization his): “Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them.” Blurred out is the rest of the tweet: “Mail-In Voting, on the other hand, will lead to the most corrupt Election is USA history. Bad things happen with Mail-Ins. Just look at Special Election in Patterson, N.J. 19% of Ballots a FRAUD!”
The June 28 Trump tweet as printed on the Republican flyer.
The Trump quote as actually tweeted.
In the July 10 flyer, Trump’s tweet (punctuation his) is quoted as: “….Absentee Ballots are fine because you have to go through a precise process to get your voting privilege.” Blurred out is the rest of the tweet: “Not so with Mail-Ins. Rigged Election!!! 20% fraudulent ballots?”
The July 10 Trump tweet as printed on a Republican flyer.
The July 10 Trump quote as actually tweeted.
In Southwest Florida mail-in balloting for the Aug. 18 primary is already heavy. According to the Lee County Supervisor of Elections, as of this writing, 43,963 ballots have already been cast. Of those, Republicans have mailed in 21,132 ballots and Democrats 15,572. Non-party affiliated voters have returned 6,995 and “others” 264.
In Collier County, 27,457 mail-in ballots have been returned. Republicans have returned 15,291, Democrats 7,928, non-party affiliated voters 4,077 and others, 155.
In the two tweets quoted and in others, Trump has argued that mail-in voting is “bad, dishonest and slow,” will lead to massive fraud and a “rigged election.” Nonetheless, mail-in voting is crucial to Republican hopes of success.
Election officials are expecting a massive influx of mail-in balloting this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Charlie Chaplin in the movie ‘The Great Dictator.’
Everything Trump touches dies: it’s the title of a book and never was a title more accurate, more appropriate and now more literal, especially here in Florida.
Trump has really touched Florida. He’s an official resident, he has his second White House in Florida as well as a golf club in Doral. He dominates the Republican political landscape, the Party and its two senators. He also handpicked the state’s governor.
And sure enough, his touch is killing Florida and Floridians. His incompetence, delusions and arrogance at the national level in handling the pandemic have, as of this writing, resulted in 3,361,042 confirmed American coronavirus cases and 135,582 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
In his adopted state 4,381 Floridians have died since March 1 and 295,312 have been infected to date, according to Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard (the one posted by dissident scientist Rebekah Jones). On Sunday, July 12, Florida hit a record 15,300 new cases; the next day it reached 12,624.
All this would be bad enough but Trump’s disastrous mismanagement at the national level has been imitated on the state level by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Florida’s path from haven to hotspot starts with Trump’s denial of the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, his characterization of warnings of it as a Democratic hoax and his dismissive assurances that it would disappear “like a miracle.” Then, when its devastation couldn’t be denied, he resisted strong measures to contain it and rushed to open the economy for the sake of his re-election.
Now two events in Florida are threatening to turn the spike into an eruption: unrestricted re-opening of schools—an all-caps demand that Trump made on Twitter—and bringing the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville. There is no telling what the rate of infection will be and how many deaths will result if these two events occur as Trump demands.
Trump is on his way to causing more American deaths from coronavirus than Americans killed by Adolf Hitler during World War II.
(Between June 1944 and May 8, 1945, there were 552,117 US casualties in the European theater of operations, of which 104,812 were killed in action, according to the US Department of Defense.)
The question that arises from all this is: Given Trump’s glaring incompetence, the demonstrated danger of his delusions and the clear path to disaster that he continues pursuing, how long will Florida politicians in positions of power—or aspiring to positions of power—allow themselves to be led by a man whose course clearly leads to catastrophe? How long will they blindly follow him?
Certainly, there seems no answer in Florida where the governor, better educated than his mentor, shows no signs of independent thought. In Southwest Florida the Republican candidates up and down the ballot make a point of going to ever greater extremes in their praise and defense of this person whose decisionmaking seems insane.
Every day, every person who dies from this plague rebukes this man and his tweets. But throughout the peninsula of Florida there’s only silence from the members of his party and the people scratching and scrambling to get votes.
In 1940 Charlie Chaplin released his anti-Nazi film, The Great Dictator. In it, Chaplin as an imposter dictator gives a final speech against dictatorship that sounds hauntingly relevant today.
“You are not machines!” he tells his listeners. “You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate—the unloved and the unnatural!”
It’s time for Florida’s leaders and voters to stop being machines and start thinking hard and independently about what’s best for themselves, their state, their nation and humanity—and not just what’s best for Donald Trump.
Participants in today’s Zoom press conference. (Image: Author)
June 25, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Florida members of the House of Representatives and grassroots activists today called on the state’s senators to work for passage of legislation protecting the state from offshore oil drilling.
Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-26-Fla.), Emma Haydocy, director of Florida Bay Forever, a Keys-based environmental activist group, and Daniel Andrews, executive director of Captains for Clean Water, a water purity advocacy group, made the call in a Zoom press conference.
All endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s call for no new offshore drilling.
“At least in Florida, where we have a pristine environment, yes,” said Rooney in response to a question on Biden’s position.
The legislation the group supports is the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019 (House Resolution (HR) 205)), introduced by Rooney, passed in the House and currently in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. (For a full account of the legislation and the issue see “Trump, Biden and Florida’s Gulf shore oil war.”)
All the speakers warned of the danger to Florida of offshore oil exploitation.
“It’s impossible to guarantee spill-free offshore drilling,” said Rooney, who noted that he had been on the board of an offshore drilling company and had worked as a contractor on one the largest offshore oil platforms.
“Anything that’s going to spill [in the Gulf of Mexico] is going to cover Florida,” he said, citing the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 and others since. “We can’t have the threat or even the potential threat against Florida.” He added that even the oil industry recognizes the danger presented by offshore drilling and the Shell Oil Company recently downsized a planned drilling platform by 90 percent.
The opposition to offshore oil drilling includes the US Defense Department and other members of Congress representing states with the potential for offshore drilling, according to Rooney.
Rooney recalled that when Ryan Zinke was Interior Department secretary (March 1, 2017 to January 2, 2019) he came to a meeting of members of Congress called by House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.). At the time, Zinke had declared that Florida—and Florida alone—was protected from offshore oil drilling. Representatives from other states complained and asked why Florida was exempted. “We just got there first,” said Rooney.
(According to a July 16, 2019 report from the US House Natural Resources Committee, the Florida exemption was established to aid then-Gov. Rick Scott’s Senate bid.)
On May 29 The Paradise Progressive posed questions to Florida Republican senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio asking whether they had taken any actions to support or advance HR 205 in the Senate.
Donald Trump addresses a rally at the Collier County Fairgrounds, Oct. 23, 2016. (Photo: Author)
June 12, 2020 by David Silverberg
Updated at 11:15 am with additional details.
When Seed to Table owner Alfie Oakes issued his now notorious 758-word screed on Facebook on Monday, June 8, it was remarkable how much he used familiar language, characterizing both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter as “a hoax.”
Of course it is President Donald Trump who is infamous for labeling virtually anything he doesn’t like as a “hoax,” whether it’s an investigation into his Russian ties or coronavirus.
But Oakes’ use of Trumpist language was hardly unique. In fact, Trump’s usages are leaching down into Southwest Florida’s political language among those who are his greatest devotees.
But it’s not just Trump’s language that’s infecting Southwest Florida’s discourse, it’s also his behavior. His insults, his personalized attacks and his overall “hatred, prejudice and rage”—to use his own words—against people of different races, ethnicities and national origins as well as his political opponents is being aped by his admirers.
This is most pronounced in the crowded field of 10 Republicans jostling to replace Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).
Where once politicians attempted to keep their campaign attacks impersonal as “just business” and focus on policy differences and their public records, Donald Trump upended that in 2016. He bulldozed his way into the presidency by making everything personal, using insults as a strategic weapon to beat down opponents and avoiding any rational discussion of substance.
Those traits have now reached Southwest Florida and the evidence is stark in the candidates’ campaign pronouncements as expressed on Twitter, also Trump’s favorite means of expression.
(In this posting I’ve helpfully highlighted the language that echoes the president’s usages. To check on all of Trump’s words as expressed in his tweets, nothing beats the searchable Trumptwitterarchive.com)
Mini-Trumps for Congress
In the 19th Congressional District, Darren Aquino, a New York actor of Puerto Rican and Italian extraction who is polling surprisingly high despite his bare-bones, all-online campaign, has been combatively Trump-like in attacking Democrat Cindy Banyai as a “socialist”–but he reserves his real ire for fellow Republicans.
Like Trump, he’s aggressively anti-immigrant: “Many so called ‘refugees’ are really economic migrants looking to replace American workers,” he tweeted on June 8. “Refugee programs are also the easiest way for terrorists to come into this country. We need to end the refugee program. America has been taken advantage of for far too long.”
Aquino shares Trump’s xenophobic prejudices. He’s attacked fellow Republican Casey Askar for his foreign roots: “Money doesn’t buy you charisma or respect. Kousay/Casey Askar has all the money in the world, but he’s laughed at by his peers and the people he hires. He’slow energyand robotic. We can’t have Iraqi born citizens in Congress, they need to be natural born Americans,” he tweeted on June 8.
(During his 2016 campaign Trump repeatedly referred to former Florida governor Jeb Bush as “low energy” and attacked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for not being “natural born”—to say nothing of Trump’s attacks on President Barack Obama’s origins. However, what he really meant was “native born”–unless they were conceived in a test tube, all the candidates are “natural born.” It’s a distinction Trump has never absorbed.)
Aquino’s spite also extends to a sitting member of Congress: “I’m going to put forth legislation requiring all Congressmen be natural borncitizens. This would remove Ilhan Omarfrom office, because she was born in Somalia,” he tweeted on June 10, adding for good measure in a comment: “We want a natural born American to beat Omar, not an Iraqi.” [Editor’s note: Changing the terms of congressional service would require a constitutional amendment.]
Like Trump, Aquino is trying to use religion to get elected as in this June 9 tweet: “America is GREAT because the men who created it were DEVOUT CHRISTIANS! WE NEED THAT SPIRIT AGAIN!”
Dr. William Figlesthaler has also thrown insults at his opponents. “Honestly, I am glad Shady Mayor Randy @HendersonForFL is running for Congress. At least it puts him out of office for good. Fort Myers needs a real leader. Someone who won’t allow the city to be run by gangsters and drug dealers,” he tweeted on Feb. 12.
He certainly has no respect for opponent State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Fla.): “@DaneEagle has never run a real race in his life. He has no clue what he is up against. @TerryMillerFL won’t be able to protect him this time. I will expose them both for the self-serving #NeverTrump RINOS they are,” he tweeted on Feb. 1.
The same day he added: “@DaneEagle is funded entirely by special interest that pay him to do his bidding. He is spineless and will sell himselfout every time. My campaign and our base of real community leaders are going to match him dollar for dollar. I won’t let a sellout buy this seat.”
But Dane Eagle is no slouch in the Trump-like insult department: “Thelow IQcommentators at CNN just fired up the Republican base like never before,” he tweeted on Jan. 28 after a report that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had insulted a CNN reporter.
Nor is he free from Trump-like blaming. On May 14 he tweeted, “President Trump did not try to cover-up the virus. China did. Trump did not lie about human-to-human transmission. China did. Trump did not throw doctors in jail. China did. Instead of launching another witch huntagainst @realDonaldTrump, let’s hold China accountable!”
Like Trump, Eagle shares the president’s solicitation for Michael Flynn, the disgraced and convicted former national security advisor: “All charges against General Michael Flynn should be dropped IMMEDIATELY! He was set up by deep state, treasonousactors. Everyone involved in this set up should be arrested and have the book thrown at them for what they did to this honorable man!” he tweeted on April 29.
The other seven Republican candidates either don’t have identifiable Twitter accounts or use Twitter to a far lesser extent. Their tweets are much more conventional and not as Trumpish as Aquino’s, Figlesthaler’s and Eagle’s. In their substance, however, all highlight their allegiance and obedience to Donald Trump and all he represents.
Byron Donalds and Antonio Dumornay
When it came to reacting to George Floyd’s killing and the resulting protests, two African American congressional candidates were faced with unique challenges and reacted in different ways. Ironically, both had been arrested in the past, giving them an intimate view of law enforcement.
“I want justice for George Floyd, but we can’t burn down our cities and small businesses—many black owned,” he said. “We can’t target our police officers, many of which are good. We must come together as a country to better our communities, not let anger push us towards anarchy. We’ve got to stop, America. We have to come together.”
Antonio Dumornay started his campaign as a Republican and then switched to Independent. His June 2 video statement, titled “Accountability! It’s not rocket science,” was succinct and to the point: “The justice system must hold everyone accountable when they commit a crime, that’s what these protests are all about. When you hold everyone accountable, the race question seems to eliminate itself.”
He followed that up with another tweet on June 7, stating: “For the first time I am watching minorities react to the George Floyd BLM protests! People getting fired for their prejudice remarks and businesses still remain slow because owners don’t know how to SHUT THE HELL UP.” He included a sarcastic emoji and the line: “did you just catch what I said! I like 2020.”
A reference to Alfie Oakes, perhaps?
When words matter
Political passions can be dangerous, as generations of Americans have learned.
Political differences have generated a civil war, riots, massacres and bombings. Among lawmakers and officials they’ve stoked duels, a beating on the floor of the Senate and shortly after independence a fight between two congressmen battling with a walking stick and a pair of fireplace tongs. (Interestingly, the fight had to do with the very first impeachment—of a senator—and, of course, involved Florida, then a colony of Spain.)
Throughout political life—and even in personal interactions—the civilized effort over time has been to reduce friction and respect everyone’s dignity. A large part of that effort has been to use language carefully—and those in public life know they have to be particularly careful in their speech.
It’s beyond obvious to say that Donald Trump isn’t part of this effort. He uses words to “totally dominate” everyone around him and the nation, whether verbally or on Twitter—and now his devotees are following his lead.
This is partially why there have been two gigantic waves of protest and reform during the three years of the Trump administration.
The first was the Women’s March and the “Me Too” movement. The second is the George Floyd protest and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Both were and are uprisings of broad swaths of people who have been insulted, marginalized and dismissed by Donald Trump. It’s part of his ongoing, relentless verbal (and political) effort to diminish everyone but himself.
A great many people aren’t taking this abuse lying down. They’re rising up.
We’ll see if that outrage translates into retaliation in the voting booth. Donald Trump may pay a big price for his words and behavior in November. Around the nation and in Southwest Florida his mini-Trumps may pay their own prices sooner than that.
Whichever way things go, there’s no doubt about the ultimate lesson: lives and words matter.
The Seed to Table store in North Naples. (Photo: author)
June 11, 2020 by David Silverberg.
Updated 2:40 pm with Lee County announcement and new petition numbers.
This weekend is shaping up to be a politically active and potentially polarizing one in Southwest Florida and statewide.
It will also likely be the most complete mass abandonment of coronavirus restraints since the state implemented safety measures in April.
Seed to Table
In Southwest Florida on Saturday two demonstrations have been called at the Seed to Table store in North Naples, at the corner of Immokalee and Livingston roads.
The dueling demonstrations are the result of a Monday, June 8 Facebook post by store owner Alfie Oakes, who, in a 758-word screed called: COVID-19 a “hoax;” denounced “the black lives matter race hoax;” excoriated the “brainwashing arms of the media;” characterized Black Lives Matter protesters as “lemmings” and “lost souls without any direction or sense of purpose;” and labeled George Floyd “a disgraceful career criminal, thief, drug addict, drug dealer and ex-con.”
The response was swift and overwhelming. A petition was launched on Change.org calling on the Lee and Collier County school boards to cut ties with Oakes Farms. As of this writing, 11,814 people had signed it and the count was rising by the minute. Collier County schools cut ties with Oakes Farm and the Benison Center, which distributes free food in Immokalee, where Oakes has been a major benefactor, is also dropping the controversial donor.
This afternoon the School District of Lee County issued a statement: “The School District of Lee County has severed ties with Oakes Farms. The District will soon be working with other suppliers to ensure that fresh fruits and vegetables continue to be provided to our students.”
The group Activist Protection League of SWFL, called for a protest at Seed to Table on Saturday, June 13, from 2 pm to 5 pm. The League is “a collection of Collier and Lee residents that seek to provide infrastructure, training, and guidance to any activist group that requests it,” according to its Facebook page.
In a Facebook post in response, Oakes announced a demonstration in support of his store one hour before the scheduled protest and warned: “Any agitators are NOT welcome, and will be removed immediately.”
“Please come show your support for [Collier County Sheriff’s Office], the rule of law and ALL lives matter at Seed to Table 4835 immokalee Road at 1 pm this Saturday!” Oakes stated. “We are going to have a peaceful and loving show of support for the great work of our officers during these unprecedented times. We will show the world the silent majority can no longer remain silent!”
The Seed to Table events follow numerous demonstrations in Fort Myers and Naples protesting the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25.
The Alfie Oakes controversy apparently attracted the attention of one of SWFL’s congressional candidates, Independent Antonio Dumornay, who tweeted on June 7: “For the first time I am watching minorities react to the George Floyd BLM protests! People getting fired for their prejudice remarks and businesses still remain slow because owners don’t know how to SHUT THE HELL UP.”
In an effort to counter the nationwide demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd, supporters of President Donald Trump are planning a day of activities throughout Florida on Sunday, June 14, which is also Trump’s 74th birthday and Flag Day.
The pro-Trump events are being planned by Trump Team 2020 Florida, a group that feels the Florida Republican Party is insufficiently supportive of Trump.
The group does not list any events for Southwest Florida. Parties are scheduled for Pensacola, Jacksonville, The Villages, Citrus City, Hernando City and Palm Beach. Boat flotillas, known as “Trumptillas,” are scheduled for Tampa, Hernando City, Jacksonville and Pensacola.
There is no central listing for upcoming events protesting the death of George Floyd or supporting Black Lives Matter.
Pro-Trump boaters take to the waters along southern Collier County on May 23.
June 6, 2020 by David Silverberg.
This year’s Memorial Day weekend began on Saturday, May 23 with hundreds of boaters in Southwest Florida launching a “Making Waves” boat parade to show their support for President Donald Trump and his re-election.
They had clear sailing on pristine waters from Naples Bay to Marco Island.
The irony is that if they get their wish and Trump is re-elected, those waters won’t be so pristine anymore.
That’s because if Trump is re-elected the eastern Gulf of Mexico will be opened to oil exploration and exploitation. In a second Trump administration, any future flotilla will have to dodge tankers, tugs, barges, tenders, lighters, shuttles, seismic testing boats and drilling ships among other vessels. Most of all, they would be maneuvering amidst immense drilling rigs. And the water will be slick with debris, pollution and—most of all—oil.
This is not fantasy or some conspiracy theory.
In 2019, after considerable confusion and mixed signals from the Trump administration whether the eastern Gulf would be opened to oil lease sales, Congress concluded, “the Trump Administration intends, if the President is reelected, to include the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in its final Five-Year Program and to hold lease sales in the Eastern Gulf as early as 2022.”
That’s stated in a July 16, 2019 report from the US House Natural Resources Committee. It goes on to say: “Given the widespread belief that a tweet from [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke declaring Florida off-limits to offshore oil and gas leasing was issued to support Florida Governor Rick Scott in his Senate race, the Committee is concerned that the Administration is playing similar games with its 2019–2024 program and intends to wait until after the 2020 presidential election, in which Florida may be a key swing state, before revealing an unpopular plan to lease off of Florida’s shore.”
Those are pretty strong words for a relatively obscure congressional report accompanying a piece of legislation.
What is more, they were not the statements of cranky Democrats taking potshots at Trump. In fact, they were issued to explain a piece of legislation introduced by a Republican.
And that Republican was Southwest Florida’s own Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).
On Sept. 11, 2019, the US House of Representatives voted 248 to 180 to pass the Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act of 2019 (House Resolution (HR) 205)).
The bill is pretty simple: it “permanently extends the moratorium on oil and gas leasing, preleasing, and related activities” in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It prohibits sale of leases, oil exploration, drilling or extracting oil along Florida’s Gulf coastline in perpetuity.
That moratorium had been in place in one form or another since 1982, maintained by congressional action and presidential decisions, which applied not just in Florida but in a wide variety of waters around the North American continental shelf, including Alaska. However, in one of his earliest acts, in April 2017 Trump issued an executive order opening up American waters to oil exploitation. The order was challenged in court but the Trump administration proceeded with planning for the sale of oil leases beginning in 2022 when the current moratorium expires.
Rooney was elected in 2016 on the same platform—literally, they stood on the same stage—as Trump. What was more, Rooney and his construction companies had extensive ties to the oil and gas industry and much of his fortune resulted from work for it. One of his earliest political donors was the consortium building the controversial XL Pipeline. And even Rooney’s origins are in Oklahoma’s oil patch.
So perhaps Rooney had a better sense than most people of what was involved in offshore oil exploitation and how it would affect Southwest Florida’s tourism, hospitality, and retail businesses and overall quality of life. After all, he lives on the water in Naples’ Port Royal.
That’s why it was particularly interesting when, after Trump’s executive order, regardless of his other activities, Rooney began working to protect the Gulf coast from oil exploitation.
But in this effort Rooney was opposed by the oil industry, which wants the option to drill everywhere and anywhere, and his fellow Republicans, in particular the powerful Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the Minority Whip in the House.
It’s worth noting the unique role of Louisiana in this: politically, the state and the oil industry are virtually one and the same. Offshore oil exploitation has brought great wealth and employment to the state and the people involved in the industry. However, it has also brought pollution and the occasional disaster, most spectacularly the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and the subsequent nearly five month-long oil spill—really more of an oil eruption.
In Congress, Rooney couldn’t make headway on maintaining the moratorium and one day he confronted Scalise directly, as he related to a small group of constituents meeting at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples in 2018.
“I was on the House floor with Steve Scalise and I got in his face and I said, ‘You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida? What industry are you talking about? I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?’” said Rooney.
Nor could Rooney make any headway with Trump’s Interior Department. He found that officials in the Department of Defense supported maintaining the moratorium because they trained pilots over the eastern Gulf. “…So the military is our ally on this,” he said. “The Department of the Interior is not. They want to ‘drill-baby-drill.’ They are Republicans, right?”
While Republicans were in power, Rooney and the moratorium made no progress.
Vessels service offshore oil rigs. (Photo: USCG)
Enter the Democrats
Then, in 2018 the House changed hands and suddenly Rooney faced a new Democratic power structure and a new Speaker of the House—Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.).
On the first day of the session, Jan. 3, 2019, he introduced HR 205 with Rep. Cathy Kastor (D-14-Fla.), who represents Hillsborough County in the Tampa area, as his first co-sponsor. The legislation gained momentum, picking up other members of the Florida delegation from both parties as co-sponsors until by June he had nine Democrats and nine Republicans.
Pelosi agreed to move the bill forward and on Sept. 11, the same day he called on his Republican colleagues to acknowledge climate change in an essay in Politico magazine, Rooney also saw his bill passed in the House. All of Florida’s representatives, both Republican and Democratic, voted for it with only one dissenter, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-3-Fla.).
From there it went to the Republican Senate where it was introduced the next day by Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. There it has languished to this day.
Why? Because with Republicans in charge, the odds were stacked against it: Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t inclined to move it and the Trump White House threatened to veto it. The Interior Department, the fossil fuel industry, the offshore drilling industry and the Republican leadership are against it.
Rooney has kept working for its passage.
“I’ve been working with Senators Rubio and Scott, as well as others whose support will be needed to advance HR. 205 in the Senate,” Rooney stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive. “They’re making sure that the Senate realizes the military, economic, and ecologic significance of banning offshore drilling east of the Military Mission Line” (the geographic line in the Gulf where the military trains)
There are possibilities that the legislation could still advance: “We’re keeping all options on the table for ways to advance HR 205, as stand-alone legislation, or as a potential amendment to other legislation. I’m optimistic that we can still be successful in this congressional session,” he stated.
On May 29, The Paradise Progressive asked the following questions about HR 205 of Sens. Rubio and Scott in a message to their offices:
Since its arrival in the Senate, have you taken any actions to advance this bill?
Do you plan to take any actions to move this bill to full consideration by the Senate before the end of the year?
If you plan to take any actions, what do you plan to do?
As of this writing, no response has been received.
Logic and illogic
Conventional political logic would dictate that if you’re a sitting president who must win the state of Florida to be re-elected, you do something that will make you popular in that state and gain you votes—like supporting HR 205. That would mean an endorsement from the president, breaking the legislation out of committee and getting it enacted into law before the general election on Nov. 3.
“The people of Florida have made it clear that they don’t want offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” stated Rooney. “It endangers our tourism and real estate-based economy, and it adversely affects military readiness. There will be a political price to pay if the will of the people is ignored. The Trump administration can move this forward if they want to protect Florida.”
True enough. But conventional political logic has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration and it’s not in evidence now.
Of course, there are bigger issues dominating the landscape at the moment than drilling for oil off Southwest Florida—like whether America will remain a democracy and whether racism can be uprooted. Still, oil is an issue that particularly matters to the people, the region and the environment.
“It’s my hope that our next representative will exhibit the same commitment and have the successes that we’ve had over these last four years in fixing our water and protecting our environment,” stated Rooney, who is retiring after this term.
But with all of the Republicans vying for his seat pledging their blind obedience to Donald Trump, that’s not likely.
However, one person who has paid attention to the topic of offshore drilling is Democratic presidential challenger former Vice President Joe Biden.
On March 15, Joe Biden debated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Washington, DC. In a discussion of climate change Biden said: “Number one, no more subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, no more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period, ends, number one.”
Subsequent analysis indicated that Biden meant no new offshore drilling; not that he would close down existing wells. But that was good enough for Florida’s Gulf coast.
However, this was not something that was going to be taken lying down by the offshore drilling industry.
On Tuesday, May 26, the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), the organization of the offshore oil industry, hit back by releasing a study, “The Economic Impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Oil & Natural Gas Industry,” warning of dire consequences if there was no new leasing or permitting in the Gulf of Mexico. Projecting out to the year 2040 it predicted losses in oil extraction, jobs, industry spending, gross domestic product and government revenues. It pointed out that the industry is a pillar in the state economies of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.
Florida is not yet on the list—but it is certainly in the industry’s sights.
And incredibly, like a raid deep into enemy territory, on May 27 an article reprinted from the Lafayette Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, La., of all places, appeared in Naples, Fla., in an across-the-page headline on the front of the Naples Daily News Business section: “Gulf drilling restrictions could prove damaging.” It put forward NOIA’s propaganda without comment or question.
With this the industry proved that it really did have a long reach—right into Rooney’s own eyeballs and the heart of the opposition.
Joe Biden at the moment in his debate with Bernie Sanders when he uttered the words “no more drilling, including offshore.” (Image: CNN)
Analysis: Boatin’ for Biden
“I’m thankful that the Florida delegation, with the exception of one member, came together in a bipartisan way to pass HR 205 out of the House,” stated Rooney to The Paradise Progressive. “This shows the strong commitment that Floridians have to protecting our waters, our economy, and our military preparedness.”
Many Floridians do indeed have a commitment to Florida’s natural environment and they will keep working to protect it. But it’s also very clear that the only hope Southwest Florida—indeed, all of the Florida Gulf coast—has to protect its shores, its environment and its current economy is the election of Joe Biden as president.
Floridians of all political persuasions will get no succor or satisfaction on this issue from President Trump or his administration. He and his minions are just waiting for his re-election to pounce and then it’s “drill-baby-drill.” And the offshore oil and gas industry will certainly show no mercy.
So those in the flotilla of south Collier County boaters who took to the water on Memorial Day weekend should think very carefully about what they’re wishing for. If they really got their wish and Donald Trump was re-elected, the Florida waters and beaches they so enjoy will likely become a dystopian hellscape of oil rigs, ships and slicks.
But of course, that’s not the future that has to be. Perhaps just enough Floridians will realize that their best interests, the interests of their state, their country, their environment and their future lies in electing Joe Biden.